NASHVILLE – In this case, home is not where the heart is. It is where the history and records reside.
For nearly 40 years, players for the Houston Oilers basked in a love affair with that city, a passion play that included the first two American Football League championships, the introduction of the run-and-shoot offense into the NFL and the opening of a stadium, the Astrodome, that was once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. The adoration on both sides peaked during the Luv Ya Blue era of the late 1970s, when a native Texan, O.A. “Bum” Phillips, was head coach.
This weekend, though, led by Tennessee Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, the franchise that her father founded in 1960 as an original member of the AFL takes its most significant step yet to bridge the gap between what was and what is. Phillips will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor during Sunday’s game with the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium, and in connection with that ceremony, roughly 80 former players from the Houston era will be in town to mark the occasion and to take part in what the team has dubbed Oilers Tribute Week.
“I think we were all connected,” Curley Culp, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman, said. “I don’t think we were lost at all. The name may change, but I think the family stays the same to a great extent. I think we all love and appreciate that.”
The franchise relocated in 1997 and after two years as the Tennessee Oilers rebranded in 1999 in the Titans. The decision was made in response to a clear disinterest from the new fan base in the history and the heritage of the club, and a desire for an identity that had some clear connection to Middle Tennessee. Founder and then-owner Bud Adams, at first, resisted any notion of change but eventually relented in the name of good business.
For former Oilers players, that created something of a void, one that deepened when Houston was granted an expansion franchise, the Texans, which began play in 2002. For example, when the Browns left Cleveland the league demanded that the history stayed with the city so when that team was rebranded as the Baltimore Ravens, it effectively was an expansion franchise. The Colts remained the Colts when they went from Baltimore to Indianapolis. The Rams and Cardinals kept their respective names and histories when they moved. Everywhere the Raiders have been, they have remained the Raiders.
The Oilers, however, existed in a sort of purgatory. Their exploits are part of the Titans’ history books, albeit a part largely ignored by the current fan base. The echoes of their actual exploits still resonated back in Southeast Texas.
“Nashville, Tennessee is where our legacy went,” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, we’re still all connected. I’m just kind of glad that Amy reached out to all the former Oiler players and gave them a place that they can call home now because for a long time – especially for guys who only played for the Oilers – they really didn’t have a place they could call home, a place where they could come back for an alumni weekend or come back and watch the team practice or whatever.
“She’s done that now by reaching out, not only this year but the last couple years we’ve had some functions in Houston. Now, she’s actually brought everybody here to Nashville, and I’m sure all these guys are very, very grateful about it, especially the guys who never played for another organization but the Oilers.”
Franchise officials recently revealed that the Ring of Honor into which Phillips will be inducted will be reimagined in the coming years. Part of the goal is to make it more accessible and interactive for fans in order to highlight the history of the organization, particularly its time in Houston so that the fans who come to Nissan Stadium every Sunday will have a better sense of who and what came before 1997.
Phillips will become the 15th member of the Ring of Honor when he is formally added. That number will grow to 17 later in the season when former coach Jeff Fisher and former general manager Floyd Reese, two prominent figures during the earliest days in Tennessee, are added.
“You give your heart and soul to a franchise,” Hall of Fame linebacker Robert Brazile, a member of the Ring of Honor, said. “I only played for one team, and the 10 years that I played I never missed a game, I never missed a practice and started every game.
“That team changed and left Houston. … When the name changed, it did have an effect on me mentally. But now it’s all sweet because of what Amy’s doing today. ... She reached out to us, to warm us to another home. So, we may be Oilers, but I think we're going to all die Titans."